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A Navy Seabee in Iraq

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 20, 2003

A sampling of last week's Washington Post headlines (with my emphasis): "Rival Shiite Factions Clash in Iraq City." "Car Bomb Explodes Outside Turkish Embassy in Baghdad." "Suspects Held in Baghdad Blast." "Unraveling a Friendly Fire Incident in Fallujah." Etc., etc. As readers of ESR know, it's hard to find good news about Iraq. Most people missed the results of a Gallup poll taken in Baghdad last week which revealed that "more than two-thirds of Baghdad residents would like to see U.S. troops stay in Iraq for an extended period." Hardly the impression one gets from mainstream media. To get a clearer picture of the dichotomy, I talked to Don Greene, a Transylvania County, NC resident, a Navy Seabee recently returned from Iraq.

During hostilities, Mr. Greene was all over Iraq "…from the Iranian Border to Baghdad, to the Turkish border and back to Kuwait. We went with the marines and our task was to build whatever bridges and roads that were needed to get the marines to wherever they needed to go, and we would build anything they needed to set up their facilities." When the fighting wound down, the Seabees turned to helping the Iraqis with their infrastructure.

Iraqis gather for the dedication of a bridge. Click picture for larger version.
Iraqis gather for the dedication of a bridge. Click picture for larger version (259 kb).

Mr. Greene said that one of the things they did was to try to get the schools back in operation. When some of the faculty and administrators realized what they were doing, "Those folks would talk to people in the community. The next day or so, someone would bring a group of children and they would kind of stand back to make sure everything was okay. Everybody kind of huddled in behind grandma, and when she seemed to have reassurance that everything was alright, then the kids would kind of fan out and watch what was going on. We enjoyed having the children watching and seeing the smiles come back on their faces. Occasionally, if we were painting, the kids would want to pick up the paint brush and paint a little bit of the walls. We enjoyed allowing them to do things like that. When we were shoveling or leveling some areas, the men in the community would come out and take the tools right out of your hands to go to work."

When I asked Mr. Greene if this kind of positive reaction occurred everywhere, he said, "I never found a place that wasn't positive to us just being there." Mr. Greene described many projects like children's playgrounds, cemeteries, electrical facilities, and irrigation projects they worked on and he said, "Different people would come out offering to pitch in and help. It was really great." He went on, "I was in Babylon when the Marine helo went in the river. I saw it go down. We had four people in there and the local Iraqi people on the other side of the river, jumped in to see if they could save the Americans on board. That just doesn't seem like a group of people that have a hardened heart."

I asked Mr. Greene about the Gallup Poll. He said if that poll had been taken outside of the cities, (the cities make up a small fraction of the country), the numbers wanting us to stay "…would be up around 100 per cent. If we were doing a convoy out in a farming community, and we happened to stop close by, whole families would drop what they were doing and just smile. They'd say ‘George Bush' and kind of give a peace sign. The children seemed to get such a joy by coming up and putting their hand on you."

From helping to redirect water to Sadam-drained marshes, to giving a little food to a hungry child; from digging up mass graves at the request of Iraqi villagers so they could identify loved ones, to rebuilding a soccer field, the stories Don Greene told me were a far cry from the steady diet of depressing news we get from Iraq.

There are two things missing from this "steady diet." One is just how bad it was in Iraq. One of the few really good reporters in the Middle East, the New York Times' John Burns, addressed the fact that so many reporters didn't report Saddam's atrocities. He wrote, "Editors of great newspapers, and small newspapers, and editors of great television networks should exact from their correspondents the obligation of telling the truth about these places." Speaking of Iraq in particular, Mr. Burns went on, "We now know that this place was a lot more terrible than even people like me had thought…This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone." And summing up: "There is corruption in our business. We need to get back to basics. This war should be studied and talked about. In the run up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility. You have to be ready to listen to whispers."

The other thing missing from our steady diet is just how much better things are now. While people in Iraq were afraid of the atrocities, and may have only whispered about them, Don Greene's story is loud and clear.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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